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Nurturing Empathy "Say My Name"

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

You are the most important people in the world when it comes to promoting empathy. Parents, early childhood educators, pre-school and elementary teachers, infant and toddler teachers, administrators, grandparents, nannies, and all caregivers are included. You are the

ones that decide whether empathy or mistrust and hate will prevail. It's really in your hands.

The hand the rocks the cradle rules the world.

- William Ross Wallace

Here's a true story from my earlier years. I was a teacher in a Head Start classroom with 19 children (mostly 4 year-olds) and two adults.

My supervisor came in for a planned observation due to my problems getting Stuart to listen to me and stay in the classroom. After the observation was over she said this to me:

In the hour I was observing, you said Stuart's name 27 times. You said all the other names combined only 14 times. That's one of your problems here.

Ouch! I had no idea that was happening. In my own defense, we were talking about a 4-year old who was being abused by his drug-addicted Mom, and who's Dad was in jail for among other things, abusing the Mom. I think Stuart might have had PTSD already. Plus there were 18 other young children in the class with various needs of their own.

Stuart was needy. But he was hurting the other children at times and refusing to listen to me many, many times each day.

I couldn't help saying his name so much. He was causing chaos.

Or could I?

I knew that I needed all the help I could get. I may have even slightly resented hearing that news but it couldn't be denied, I needed to change the way I handled Stuart. It wasn't fair to him and it wasn't fair to the others either.

Now, over 30 years later, let me tell you in as simple a way possible, how I used that observation to change the way I related to all kids and create a really helpful attitude in hundreds of children I worked with directly for the next 30 or so years.

This is actually the very first time I'm writing this down and I've shared it with very few, but I know through trial and error that it works and it can help you as it helped me. Plus you don't have to go through the embarrassment of getting a negative comment on your observation record like I did.

I call my technique "Say My Name". I need a quick way of referring to it.

One of the reasons this works is described by child psychologist Rudolph Driekurs in Encouraging Children to Learn

“A child needs encouragement like a plant needs water.”

Rudolf Dreikurs (1979)

Everyone wants to be noticed and heard. If kids don't feel it, they'll try anything to get noticed including bad behavior of all kinds from annoying to downright dangerous or hurtful. But how does one turn that around?

I use a language development technique, along with what I learned from that observation and I got this simple and user-friendly method of getting kids noticed for the right things, not the wrong. It goes like this...

When a child is playing, they are busy learning. Instead of ignoring that learning behavior, I comment on it as noninvasively as I can. I don't want to mess with their flow, but I want them to know that I'm seeing their progress.

I see that Penny is busy in the block area. Hmm....... (wait for response) Oh, she's working on a doggie hospital. Thanks for telling us, Penny.

Missy's got some trains going on a track she built!

Raj, it looks like you're cooking something. Oh, you're making some sandwiches with tomatoes. Sounds yummy. Oh, Bernie's coming over for dinner. Cool.

This is my running commentary. Occasionally, I notice an issue. When I do, I move towards the problem and say something like:

Excuse me? Do you need help taking turns?

Is there a problem?

It looks like you might need help.

or I clear my throat while looking for clarification (never blame)!

The basic idea is that I save their beautiful little names for positive conversations and leave them out when there's an issue. Don't worry, they'll know who you're talking to because you're looking right at them and probably moving towards them at the same time.

Most children know when their behavior is questionable.

reflection: Try it. When you practice and get really good at this technique, you'll feel the difference. I know that it isn't really as easy as it sounds because it's different than what we're used to but believe me, it makes a difference in cooperation and positive attitudes all around.



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